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Retinol 101: The Benefits & Risks

There are few ingredients as hotly debated as retinol. With new European Union (EU) regulations coming into effect in 2025* limiting the strength of cosmetic retinol, it’s time we take a deeper look at this popular ingredient.

Lauded by celebrities, retinol is considered by many the ‘gold standard’ for anti-aging skincare due to its ability to rapidly speed up skin cell turnover.  This results in diminished fine lines and wrinkles and improved skin tone. 

What is retinol?

A vitamin A derivative and part of a family of molecules called retinoids.  The most powerful retinoid is retinoic acid or tretinoin, which was given FDA approval in 1971. This topical treatment was prescribed by dermatologists to clear acne, improve acne scarring, and prevent clogged pores.  Later it was found to have anti-aging benefits when acne patients showed an improvement in skin aging.

Woman putting serum on her face

Retinol vs. retinoid

The terms retinoid and retinol get used interchangeably which causes confusion, but generally speaking, retinoid tends to describe the more powerful prescription product.  Retinol, with its lower concentration of retinoic acid, is the less intense over-the-counter version and is mainly in skincare formulas. 

What does retinol do to your skin?

Retinol increases cell turnover “which causes a natural exfoliation” and helps to clear blocked pores. Retinol increases collagen production, which can reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, giving your skin a fresher, plump appearance.

Is retinol safe to use?

High doses of vitamin A can cause birth defects during pregnancy which is why retinol is not recommended for pregnant or nursing women. Additionally, retinol is not recommended for people with sensitive skin, those who suffer from eczema or rosacea, or those who have food intolerances and high allergic reactions. The American Association of Dermatologists recommends you talk to your dermatologist to see if it would be a good option for your skin.

Does over-the-counter (OTC) retinol work?

There are many people who believe it does. However, according to a study by the National Library of Medicine, they found there is very little, if any, trustworthy evidence available to support the use of over-the-counter cosmetic retinol-containing products to improve the appearance of aged skin. They concluded that cosmetics companies rely on the relative ignorance of the consumer, using carefully worded and often misleading statements based on poor-quality trials to sell their products.

Shifting attitudes to retinol

Many doctors still consider retinol to be the gold standard for anti-aging products but most will give caution about its use and admit that retinol is not for everyone. However, there

is a growing body of dermatologists who don’t believe that retinol should be available in over-the-counter skincare products for various reasons. First, there is a high potential for misuse. Second, it is not nursing or pregnancy safe.  Additionally, it weakens the skin barrier system causing hypersensitivity to the sun and other environmental aggressors such as pollution and cigarette smoke, which in turn leads to inflammation and hyperpigmentation. In short, the benefit might not be worth the cost.

Why is the EU restricting the strength of retinol?

New EU regulations will require products to carry a warning and will limit the concentration of retinol in cosmetics to a maximum of 0,05 % Retinol Equivalent (RE) in body lotion and 0,3 % RE in other leave-on and rinse-off products. The warning and restrictions stem from concerns about overall exposure to vitamin A from both foods, food supplements, and cosmetics.

Takeaway

Retinol is not for everyone. Caution should be taken when including powerful vitamin A derivatives into your skincare routine and should only be used after advice from your dermatologist.

 

  

* Products containing Retinol, retinyl Acetate and retinyl Palmitate which do not comply with new regulation requirements shall not be placed on the market from November 1, 2025, and shall not be made available from May 1, 2027. 

 

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NOTE: This blog is intended for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical advice. It should not be relied on as health or personal advice. Always seek the guidance of your doctor or other qualified health professional with any questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition.